What do you feel while standing before a tall and majestic mountain? A flood of beauty rushing over your soul? A deep sense of humility as you contemplate the mountain’s size and power? Or do you begin to think how you would like to climb that mountain? Those who feel a desire to climb really tall mountains are a special breed. Yet the height of a mountain is not the issue. The issue is that each of us as spiritual human beings needs to face a challenge that is right for us.
When Jesus asked Peter, James, and John to follow him up a mountain, I wonder how these lowland fishermen responded to the challenge. Were they in physical shape? Did they know why they were making this climb? We don’t know the answers to any of these questions. All we know is that they followed Jesus up a mountain.
Jesus must have been an experienced mountain climber. On several occasions he hiked into mountains in order to pray…to be alone. And now he was taking three friends to a peak he had no doubt visited before. It was time to share his mountain-spirit experience with his disciples.
What I would like to do now is talk about what goes into a mountain expedition with the hope that we might make parallel connections with our own spiritual journeys. I want to thank our own Del LaRue, for sharing his expertise and experience of climbing some of the world’s tallest peaks.
I don’t know if the disciples really wanted to climb that mountain. They probably just wanted to be with Jesus. And where Jesus went was okay with them. Why do people today climb mountains? There is a desire for personal challenge. Some are driven by a desire for a trophy. Others want to know who they are at the very depths of their being. They feel that much of life today is superficial. Dr. Jim Litch, Mt. Everest base camp doctor, said, "Life in the mountains draws out the character of those who journey there. Maybe this is one of the many reasons we climb, to see ourselves at the core, not packaged and contained as we are when living with the constraints of technology and consumerism." Do you want to know who you are at the core of your being?
As a young man in my twenties I felt this way and embarked on many adventures climbing and rappelling on cliffs. I wanted to face some of my most basic fears, to know I would not conquer them, but would find the strength to not let them rule my life. There is a carryover effect when we engage in these kinds of physical challenges. If we face our fears in climbing a rock wall, a mountain, a backpack trip, a running race, or rafting trip, we are better prepared to face the challenge of being a parent of a special needs child, or dealing with divorce, coping with cancer, or talking with someone about God.
When you come to the point when you are facing disaster what past experiences do you draw upon in order to give you the courage to move on? There are many people in our church who are cancer survivors. After walking through the valley of the shadow of death they have said, "Everything from now on will be a piece of cake!"
Before we undertake climbing a mountain we need to prepare ourselves physically. Let me ask you. Have you ever thought that taking care of your body and your health is a spiritual activity? Well it is. The Bible talks about the body being the temple of the Holy Spirit. Our bodies are precious gifts from God and need proper care. If we are going to face the physical challenge of climbing a mountain we certainly need to commit ourselves to a healthy diet and regular exercise routine.
Mountain climbers will tell you that the physical element is only part of the preparation. Climbing a big mountain is mostly mental. We must have the images burned into our minds that we can do this! When facing a spiritual challenge do you have the right images in your mind, images that help you know that you can do this? My current breath prayer is this: By your grace, O God, I can do this. I pray this prayer when I’m on the treadmill at the gym. I pray this prayer when I walk into a hospital room where someone is dying. I pray this prayer when I need to make time to be with God in quiet prayer and meditation. Spiritually, how do you need to grow? What spiritual challenge lies before your soul? By the grace of God, you can do it!
There is a name for the condition that drives people to get to the top. It’s called "summit fever." Probably the best reason to climb a mountain is to experience the mountain, not get to the top. In 1998 a team of women who were cancer survivors attempted to climb Denali. As they gained altitude health problems forced some to descend. What was left of the team waited out a storm for several days a few thousand feet from the summit. But their food supply dwindled and they had to turn around. For these women it was not a defeat. Yes, there was discouragement, but there was a deep sense of bonding, both with the mountain and with each other that would stay with their spirit for the rest of their lives.
The Christian life is not about getting to a destination. It is about the journey! This means that we learn to accept the so-called detours and delays in life. They are all part of the journey! Think about what this means in our daily lives. Our waiting in check out lines, our waiting in traffic jams, our being put on hold on the phone, our waiting at the doctor’s office, our waiting to pick up a child from practice…these are all very much a part of our spiritual journey. God is as real to us while we are being delayed as when we feel we are making progress. It is a vital spiritual lesson for us all.
When you climb a mountain you need the right tools. Here are some of the tools needed for a technical climb on a very high mountain. (Show tools.) As we embark on another Lenten journey we also need tools. I strongly encourage you to choose some of the spiritual tools such as daily prayer, simple living, or fasting to help you climb your Lenten mountain.
Another aspect of mountain climbing is loneliness. Even when we are roped with others there is a kind of loneliness every climber faces. The safety nets are gone when you are at 18,000 feet. It all comes down to your ability to carry your pack and put one foot in front of the other.
At 18,000 feet it is hard to breathe. The closer you get to the summit the slower life becomes. When Del LaRue climbed Denali he reports that near the summit he took 4 breaths for every step! Think about how slow this pace is…four breaths for a single step! In our fast paced world one of the best things we can do to enhance our awareness of God is to focus our own breathing. We can connect our breaths with a prayer. If we are diligent in this practice we can see our breathing and praying be one.
Most people who climb tall mountains do not do it alone. They travel with a guide, someone who knows the way. Jesus was the guide for Peter, James, and John. He still is guide for you and me. But there are also others who guide us along life’s journey from beyond the grave. They are our saints, loved ones who still walk beside us along the path.
In 1953 the first people to summit Mt. Everest were Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa guide. Norgay’s son, Jamling Norgay, summitted Everest in 1999. He wrote a book called "Touching My Father’s Soul." While standing on the world’s tallest peak, "I looked down on the ruins of the Rongbuk monastery, where my father chased yaks as a very young boy. Then I turned back and I saw him – my father. He was right there behind me, off to the side where a patch of rock meets the snow. His face was shining, beaming." The communion of saints is an oft-neglected doctrine in the church today. But those who journey through life without their loved ones know full well that they are not alone.
A mountain climber by the name of Dave Wendelin, wrote this about one of his climbs on a mountain he calls, The Daddy. "The thing that drew me into the world of "The Daddy", was not the good rock, good protection, or the pleasant climbing. The rhythm of the rope and of the gorge became so thick that I felt as if, instead of physically climbing, I was just breathing and moving up. All while seeing with deepened eyes, the wonder of the mountains, the sky, and the wind blowing through the trees that spread out below us.
A rock outcropping revealed itself to me as a silent witness to the ages and ages of creation that were visible to my eyes. And when I touched that inanimate rock, that unfeeling mineral, all I could hear was the gift of my breath and the wonder of being in such a place of inward and outward beauty.
I'm not making this up. Climbing to me is as fulfilling as church on Sunday. I am drawn to these high places seeking that feeling even though I know that that feeling is only a breath away. I am drawn to those vertical hikes to see and witness for myself the miracles of life-and my life.
I wish to be able to climb a mountain as high as I can physically, so I can see the valleys and the rivers and the other mountains by only spinning around slowly where I stand. And then be able to sit down, close my eyes and feel inside what I have witnessed on the outside."
When Jesus and his friends reached the summit of their mountain they experienced the glory of transformation. The promise of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that you and I can be transformed! We too can be changed! We can taste God’s glory! But guess what? The true test of mountain peak experiences will happen when we descend the mountain. When Jesus returned from the mountain he was thrust into the sea of humanity. His first act was to heal a man’s son from epilepsy.
Lent begins this week with Ash Wednesday. It is a special time to mark our spiritual journey. Forty days before the resurrection. It is somewhat like standing before a mountain. Do you want to make the climb this year? Will you make the preparations for this trek? Will you allow Jesus to be your climbing guide? May God empower us all to take this journey seriously as we seek to be transformed into his image.
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Copyright © 1998-2004 Jon S. Dawson. Last modified: February 01, 2009